UNC Health Care

A Get-Back-Into-Working-Out Plan

Sometimes your fitness routine becomes more of a memory than an everyday occurrence. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced nearly everyone to modify their workout habits in some way, and for some, that’s meant dropping exercise altogether.

If this describes you, that’s OK! It’s been a very tough year (and counting), but it’s always a good time to jump back in. You just have to take care so that you don’t get injured or overwhelmed.

Whether it’s been a couple of weeks, months or more than a year since your last workout, UNC Rex fitness instructor Rodney Jenkins has tips for getting back into a fitness routine.

Two Weeks Off

Two weeks away from workouts may not seem like much, but Jenkins says it’s significant enough to require some planning before starting to work out again.

To start, “limit the amount of time you are exercising, and start with a lighter form of exercise like walking on a treadmill or outside for 10 to 15 minutes to get your heart pumping again,” Jenkins says.

If you usually train with weights, use lighter weights than normal, and go for a lower rep count. Also, make sure you aren’t working out for longer than 20 minutes at a time, to ease your body back into physical activity.

If you do workout videos, make necessary modifications: Do fewer reps, modify movements to make them easier or finish the video early.

No matter what type of exercise you choose, listen to your body. If something feels too difficult, scale back. If you need a break, take it.

One Month Off

The approach for getting back into working out after a month off is very similar to two weeks off: Limit the amount of time you exercise and dial down the intensity.

“If you like classes and want to take one, let your instructor know ahead of time that you’ve been away from your routine for some time,” Jenkins says. “They can provide modifications for you, and will know that if you are taking it slower, or if you leave before the class is over, you’re OK.”

If you want to get back into a very demanding type of exercise, such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), it’s important to make sure you have a certain level of fitness and cardiovascular endurance before restarting. Do other forms of exercise or weight training to help you get there. Don’t go straight from not working out to HIIT.

Several Months Off

“If you’ve had several months away from exercise, you should consider yourself starting from scratch,” Jenkins says. “You have to retrain your body. The movements you used to do, your body won’t be ready for, and your heart will not be used to the extra work.”

Start slow and build up your routine: two days a week of moderate activity, then three times a week. Expect to be a little uncomfortable, Jenkins says.

“Your heart rate will be elevated, which you may not be used to feeling. And your muscles will ache for several days after the first couple of workouts.”

There are risks to trying too much too quickly. You could experience an injury, which can set you back for months. It’s normal to feel muscle soreness for a couple of days after a workout, or a week at most. If you feel actual pain or the soreness lasts longer than a week, see a physician.

A Year or Longer Off

“I have a strategy for people who have lost their mojo and been away from the gym for a long time,” Jenkins says. “Sign up for a 5K walk or race.”

Training for an event will give you purpose and a specific exercise routine that will build strength and endurance. It also keeps you accountable, because missing too many workouts will impact your ability to complete the course on race day.

There are many race options, virtual and in person; choose a 5K that is 10 or 12 weeks away and find a training program. Jenkins recommends the Jeff Galloway training schedules.

Just like with taking weeks or months off, getting back into an exercise routine will be physically and mentally challenging. You will be sore and you may want to stop working out because it’s more uncomfortable than rewarding in the beginning. Jenkins says to keep in mind that soreness means your body is adjusting to your new routine. After some time, the soreness will be replaced by increased strength and endurance. If you’re having trouble keeping to your training schedule, find a mentor.

“Workout facilities have instructors and personal trainers who can help guide you,” Jenkins says. “Don’t necessarily rely on a friend or your spouse, because they may not be on the same path as you. A true mentor will tell you truthfully about the challenges that exist and how to overcome them.”

Mentors also can help you with burnout by suggesting new ways to change up your routine to make it more exciting, while still helping you achieve your goals. And once you’ve achieved a goal, such as finishing that first 5K walk or race, sign up for the next one so you have something new to work toward.

Exercising After COVID-19

If you’ve recovered from COVID-19 and want to get back into a fitness routine, talk to your physician first. Ask if it’s safe to start exercising again.

When you get the green light from your doctor, start slowly. Limit exercise to walking on a treadmill or outside.

“Walking in a pool is one of the best exercises you can do,” Jenkins says. “It is low impact, adds resistance, and actually prevents your body from becoming quickly overheated.”

Jenkins says you should also keep in mind that COVID-19 can impact your cardiovascular system. He recommends using a heart rate monitor to keep tabs on how hard your heart is working. You may have a hard time catching your breath when you exercise after having COVID-19. This is normal and should get better as your body fully recovers and regains endurance. But again, take it slow and listen to your body.


If you’re ready to start working out again, UNC Rex Wellness Centers can help. Find one near you and make an appointment with a trainer to help you get started.